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Just because you think your children are extraordinary, doesn’t mean they are

Although a large majority of parents might believe that praise is invariably beneficial to children, research suggests otherwise.

Everyone is brilliant, right? Photo: Jacobsen /Three Lions/Getty Images

It is natural for parents to value their child – and feeling valued is key to children’s well-being; but some parents “overvalue” their child, believing their child is more special and more entitled than others.

The idea of parental overvaluation was first introduced in psychology by Sigmund Freud, who saw it as “a revival and reproduction” of parents' own narcissism. Parents who overvalue their child, Freud argued: “are under a compulsion to ascribe every perfection to the child, which sober observation would find no occasion to do”.

Empirical research on parental overvaluation has been scarce, but in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we put it to the test.

We conducted six studies involving more than 1,700 Dutch and American parents. We first developed a concise self-reporting instrument to assess individual differences in parental overvaluation – something called the Parental Overvaluation Scale (POS). In the scale, parents rate their agreement with statements such as: “my child deserves special treatment” and: “my child is a great example for other children to follow.”

The scale yields an average score in the range from: “not at all overvaluing” to: “extremely overvaluing”. We found that there are important differences between parents in how strongly they overvalue their child and that these differences shape parents’ thoughts and behaviours.

The Tale of Benson Bunny

Given that overvaluing parents see their child as an “embryonic genius” (as the neo-Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney put it), they might overestimate their child’s capacities. Our findings confirm this prediction.

In one study, we asked parents to rate their child’s smartness, and we assessed the child’s actual IQ. Parental overvaluation predicted how smart parents thought their child was, but not how smart the child actually was. In another study, we presented parents with items that children should be familiar with by the end of their first year at secondary school, such as “Neil Armstrong” and the book “Animal Farm". For each topic, we asked parents whether they thought their child would be familiar with it. Unbeknown to the parents, we also included items that did not actually exist, such as “Queen Alberta” and “The Tale of Benson Bunny.” Overvaluing parents tended to claim that their child had knowledge of many different topics – including these non-existent ones.

What’s in a name?

Overvaluation shapes not only how parents think about their child, but also how they treat and raise their child. Overvaluing parents want their child to stand out from the crowd. One way to accomplish this is by giving children a unique, uncommon first name. To test this, we used a national database to obtain the proportion of children who were the same sex and born in the same year as the children in the study, and we found that overvaluing parents were indeed more likely to give their child an uncommon first name.

When parents overvalue their child, they might want to express their inflated views of their child. One means to do so is by heaping praise on the child. We conducted in-home observations, and we counted how often parents praised their child while the child was doing mathematics exercises. We found that overvaluaing parents praised their child 62 per cent more than parents who had less inflated views of their child.

Although a large majority of parents might believe that praise is invariably beneficial to children, research suggests otherwise. Previous work by Carol Dweck and by us shows that praise, if focused on the person (for example: “you’re great”) or phrased in an overly positive way (for example: “you made an incredibly beautiful drawing”), can ironically backfire, especially in children with low self-esteem.

Reality or fiction?

Are overvalued children different from other children? Are they somehow more “extraordinary” or “special” than others? Perhaps not. We found that overvalued children are not smarter or better performing than other children, nor do they differ in their basic temperamental traits. So, the justification for overvaluing their child seems to reside more in parents’ minds than in objective reality.

Not all parents are equally inclined to overvalue. We found that narcissistic parents, who believe they are superior to others and who want to be admired by others, are especially inclined toward it. But why? One possibility is that narcissistic parents are trying to put themselves on a pedestal. Because parents often see their child as part of themselves, admiring their child may also be an indirect way of admiring themselves. Another possibility is that narcissistic parents simply believe that the child has inherited their “wonderful qualities”.

So, much like Narcissus admired his own image in the water, narcissistic parents often admire their own image of flesh and blood: their child.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times